Wyoming boasts a legendary history of women’s rights. Dubbed the “Equality State,” Wyoming is home to many firsts.
The first female to cast a vote did so in Laramie a full 50 years before women could vote in the rest of the United States.
The first female governor was elected in Wyoming, and the nation’s first woman to be appointed to public office lived in South Pass City.
When invited to join the union only if women’s suffrage was revoked, Wyoming’s legislators said, “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women.”
With that history, though, comes the burden of comparison.
In March 2018, personal finance website WalletHub identified the best and worst states for women in terms of wages, education, health and political representation. The study looked at 23 indicators of living standards in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Wyoming ranked 33rd.
So, how did a state with a storied history of supporting its women become the state ranked 51st of all the states and Washington, D.C., in equality of men’s and women’s wages, according to the National Partnership for Women and Children, which analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data released in 2016, based on incomes from 2015.
How did Wyoming become the state with the lowest percentage of women in state legislature?
And, more importantly, what steps are being taken to restore Wyoming’s reputation as the “Equality State”?
“I think some people are frustrated that we haven’t come further,” said Rebekah Smith, director of the Wyoming Women’s Foundation. “Just because we were first doesn’t mean we have equal representation.”
The WYWF invests in the economic self-sufficiency of women and the future of girls in the state. Smith noted a number of factors — for example, geography, wages and access to health care — women face when seeking to support themselves or serve in the Wyoming Legislature or other elected offices.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Wyoming’s percentage of women in the Wyoming Legislature is the lowest in the country, coming in at 11.1 percent. Other states with less than 15 percent of female representation are Oklahoma (14.1), Louisiana (14.6), Mississippi (14.9) and West Virginia (14.9).
The states with the most representation are Arizona and Vermont, both coming in at about 40 percent of their legislatures comprised of women.
When state Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, ran for the Wyoming Legislature, she said just one other woman was serving in that capacity. In 2016, Ellis said, she took her daughter to a Senate debate, and her daughter asked if women were allowed to be in the Senate.
“My daughter’s comments stuck with me and prompted me to run,” Ellis said, adding that now there are three women in the Wyoming Senate.
Geography and the state’s setup as a citizen legislature can deter women from seeking office, both Ellis and Smith said.
“Some of the things we’ve heard is that there are challenges in terms of geography and being able to commit to getting down there while still fulfilling family commitments,” Smith said. “That may keep us from getting parity in the Legislature.”
Ellis echoed those concerns. She noted that another theory as to why women have a harder time getting elected is that Wyoming now has single-member districts whereas legislators used to be elected countywide. In addition, she said, the nature of the citizen legislature tends to favor retirees who can go to Cheyenne for one or two months of the year.
“That’s difficult for a young person and for a young working mom in particular,” Ellis said.
But, if Wyoming were to become a full-time legislature, representatives and senators would either need to leave their families or move to Cheyenne.
“Those things aren’t ideal,” Ellis said, indicating that the citizen legislature is what works best in the state right now. “But it’s worth thinking about the barriers that prevent young people and women from seeking public office.”
Ellis also pointed to other measurements of women being involved. For example, women have represented the state in the U.S. House since the mid-1990s. In addition, two of the five statewide elected officials are women. And more and more women, Ellis said, are serving on statewide and local boards and in local elected offices.
When the WYWF and legislators begin talking about economic self-sufficiency for women in the state, the debate about the gender wage gap often arises.
According to “The Wage Gap Between Wyoming’s Men and Women: 2016,” authored by Dr. Cathy Connolly of the University of Wyoming Gender and Women’s Studies Department, Wyoming ranks 49th in the nation for the wage gap. That means nearly all other states have better earning equality than Wyoming.
“I think when we talk about the wage gap in Wyoming, the conversation definitely starts shifting toward what kind of occupations men have — meaning higher paying and in the energy sector — and the opportunities available for women,” Ellis said.
Ellis added that as Wyoming seeks to diversify its economy with other kinds of jobs, it needs to consider jobs that both genders will gravitate toward.
For example, as shopping shifts online and more distribution centers are needed for employers such as Amazon, a shift occurs. According to an article from 2017 in the Dallas Morning News, women hold about 60 percent of jobs at general merchandise stores but only about one-third of those at warehouses.
As the state seeks to recruit different kinds of businesses — such as the manufacturing companies moving into or expanding in Sheridan — Ellis hopes leaders will consider pursuing industries that may employ more women.
“Wyoming isn’t alone in those conversations,” Ellis said. “So we have to look at how we shift in the future. Some of those issues are difficult, but conversations can help raise awareness.”
Ellis pointed to recent efforts by the Wyoming Legislature to require computer science courses in public schools as an example of a positive step, as those kinds of jobs can be equalizers in terms of pay.
Smith noted some other steps Wyoming could take to live up to its moniker of the Equality State.
She recommended establishing an equal pay office to help process claims regarding the issue. Smith said by establishing such an office the state could provide people access to resources to ensure they aren’t discriminated against and that they are doing everything they can to be a self-advocate.
In addition, Smith hopes to raise awareness around self-sufficiency.
“The women’s foundation headed up a renewal in the self-sufficiency standard,” Smith said, explaining that the standard calculates how much income families of various sizes and compositions need to make ends meet at a minimally adequate level without public or private assistance. “And that revealed the greatest risk to living below the self-sufficiency standard is to be a single woman, with children in particular.”
Legislative leaders have taken positive steps to address some of the issues women in Wyoming face. In 2017, legislators requested a study be completed on the gender wage gap in the state. That study was released by the Department of Workforce Services in October 2018 and will likely be at the center of state-wide discussions moving forward.